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End the day Happily Ever After

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Arthur Levine, Special for USA TODAY

Published 7:45 a.m. ET July 17, 2017 | Updated 7:45 a.m. ET July 17, 2017

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Don’t blink! You won’t want to miss Cinderella’s castle at the Magic Kingdom get a makeover as part of Disney’s nighttime fireworks and projections show.
USA TODAY

Fireworks have been exploding over the spires of theme park castles almost since Disneyland first lowered its drawbridge in 1955. The Mouse’s nighttime shows have become an indelible part of the park experience. The castle-pyrotechnics combo is such a potent part of the company’s corporate identity and the cultural canon, Walt Disney Pictures features it for its production logo at the opening of its movies.

With the new Happily Ever After fireworks show at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, however, the fireworks have been upstaged. In fact, no pyrotechnics appear until well over a minute into the presentation. It’s not that the fireworks are incidental exactly. Plenty of bursts still light up the Florida park’s sky. But they’ve been relegated to a co-starring role at best. Along with the musical soundtrack, spotlights, and lasers, fireworks often support the show’s true main player: digital projections.

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Projection mapping, in which digital content is projected onto three-dimensional surfaces such as buildings, first appeared at the Disney parks a few years ago. Initially, the shows were stand-alone presentations that were occasionally punctuated with a few fireworks. The imagery, which is designed to fit the contours of the structures, used to be more abstract, with bright colors and shapes lighting up and animating buildings such as Disneyland’s “it’s a small world” façade and the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle.

As the artistry and technology evolved and the imagery became sharper and brighter, the projected content included brief animated vignettes featuring Disney’s beloved stable of characters. Essentially, projection mapping shows have turned the parks into drive-in theaters with the castles and other structures serving as enormous screens.

Now, virtually every nighttime show at a Disney park incorporates projections. (The show technology is even making its way indoors on rides and attractions.) It’s likely that Wishes, the fireworks spectacle that debuted in 2003 at the Magic Kingdom and closed earlier this year to make way for Happily Ever After, will be the last Disney World show to focus solely on pyrotechnics.

With so many things competing for attention in Happily Ever After, it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. However, the focus is often more on the castle than the fireworks bursting above it. “For this show, we wanted the castle to be the storyteller itself,” says Michael Young, the show’s creative director.

At times, characters appear on makeshift “stages” projected onto the iconic building. In one especially effective scene, stained glass and other elements convert the castle into the namesake cathedral from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A silhouette of Quasimodo, the lead from the underappreciated film, swings up into of the castle’s turrets, which is transformed into a bell tower. Firework blasts accompany the bells’ peals.

Another lively sequence features characters and songs from Aladdin. Using digital mapping, the entire castle appears to bop and dance in time to the music. “You have to think about the projection on the castle and how it’s going to marry to the surface,” Young explains.

His team also had to consider how the pyrotechnics would integrate with the projected content. For example, they incorporated an animated explosive pulse that starts at the center of the castle and turns into an actual bursting shell. In another scene, a character issues a flash from a scepter that perfectly segues into a colorful blast in the sky. “You see the fireworks through the castle…as a lens, and I think that can be a very effective way to use the architecture. We also create a visual that’s really unique,” adds Young.

Other movies that are referenced include recent hits such as Moana, Frozen, and Zootopia. Older films also made the cut. “One of my favorite things about the show is that we got to work with some of our classic animation artists to bring some of the characters to life,” Young says. “You see characters like Ursula [from The Little Mermaid] and Jafar the Snake [from Aladdin]. All have been animated just to appear on the castle itself.”

I suppose it wouldn’t be giving away too much to reveal that everyone lives happily ever after (not including meanies like Urusula and Jafar). In typical Disney fashion, the show is about good triumphing over evil, love conquering all, and plucky heroes fulfilling their destiny. The penultimate scene features characters from Hercules (another under-the-radar movie) and its rousing song, “I Can Go the Distance” accompanied by a cacophony of fireworks.

The 18-minute show is bookended by the lovely new song, “Happily Ever After.” It’s a fairy tale ending to a spectacular “kiss goodnight” presentation that leaves wowed park visitors if not happily ever after, at least happy for the evening.

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